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Even as a little girl, Billie Wheeler has always had a love for working outdoors. Whether it was working on the family farm or in the garden,
Wheeler said there just didn’t seem to be anything better or more rewarding. So it came as no surprise when she landed a job at Forrest Keeling Nursery almost 37-years ago and still remains there today.
Wheeler said her experience at Forrest Keeling has been different and sometimes challenging but always seemingly enjoyable.
“I started in the grading room,” Wheeler said. “In the winter we would head out to the fields and do bare rooting, which was a new kind of experience being a new employee and all. Mostly I graded though.”
According to Wheeler, back when she first started all the grading was done by hand and everyone had to tie his or her own bundles.
“We were on piecework and back then you had to do so many bundles to get on piecework,” Wheeler said. “I was lucky enough and fast enough to be placed on piecework and eventually they started switching me back and fourth to the greenhouses where I worked for the next 14-years”
While working in the greenhouse, Wheeler said she did a lot of the cuttings with a crew of women, who would also go out into the fields, take U-Cuttings, bring them back to the greenhouse, tie them up into little bundles and then run them through a solution.
“We would also go out to the bed in the greenhouse and plant the U-Cuttings, thousands of them and at times it seemed a little tedious but I still really enjoyed it,” Wheeler said. “There is really nothing I haven’t done since I started working here all those years ago.”
Wheeler said some of the biggest changes that have been made over the last 37-years include changes to the grading technique.
“Like I said, when I first started all the grading was done by hand. You sat at a table, you had your string cut and you bundled your sizes,” Wheeler said. “Eventually they went to a tying machine but now they have a conveyer belt system, where they put the plants on a table where there is a feeder at one end and the worker just pulls out what size they need. If she’s supposed to get a 16-inch she can grab a 16-inch and it’s much faster.”
Another big change Wheeler said she has witnessed is the fact they no longer do U-Cuttings in the field, as the nursery has evolved to using a potting system and they also no longer use netting in the field for the same reason.
Although many changes have been made since she started, Wheeler said no two days are the same.
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